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Experts Explain the NFL’s Biggest Scandals

As the 2015-2016 football season gets underway, we spoke with experts about how recent scandals will impact the league, and how Goodell can recover from a dismal track record of dolling out justice in his league.

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KYLE TERADA / REUTERS

They come every year. From accusations penned by equipment managers. From video assistants, found where they shouldn’t be. From helmet-to-helmet contact. From short, grainy videos of the insides of elevators. From witness testimony of wives and children. From suspiciously loud stadiums, bad movie trailers and the largest brain banks in the world. “They” are NFL scandals and controversy, and they come as regularly as the Superbowl, with names like Bounty-, Spy- and Deflategate, only to be replaced by the next controversy, the next commissioner, the next star player, the next year. As Roger Goodell and the NFL decides how to regulate 32 teams, and improve a track record recently blemished by many high-profile cases, we took a look at recent scandals through the eyes of the experts to see how they’ll play out in the 2015-2016 season.

Artificial Crowd Noise

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On March 30, 2015, the NFL fined the Atlanta Falcons $350,000, stripped them of their fifth-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft and suspended the team’s president, Rich McKay, from the Competition Committee (he was reinstated in August). The NFL had found Falcons director of event marketing Roddy White guilty of pumping pre-recorded crowd noise into the Georgia Dome during home games of the 2013 and 2014 seasons. The auditory infraction, while physically harmless, had attacked the heart of sports psychology: staying “in the zone.”

“It governs how successful players are, particularly visiting other stadiums. The best players are ‘in the flow‘ and not hearing the crowd [as much],” said William Weiner, a sport psychology consultant who’s worked with players in the NBA, MLB and NFL. “Other players are vulnerable to pressure from the noise, to overthinking. Artificial noise can reach them and undermine their performance.” The impact of crowd noise is most pronounced in sports with fine motor control or cognitive thought, like on the putting green or while searching for a receiver downfield. (At the 2011 US Open, Serena Williams lost a point for shouting “Come on!” while her opponent tried to return the ball.) Although, one doesn’t have to look much further than the disparity between NFL home and away records, or MLB home and away batting averages.

“There are automatic thoughts that occur in a player’s mind. When they hear a hostile crowd, they interpret it as celebrating their failure, and it ramps up their anxiety,” said Weiner. “In a loud cavernous football stadium…athletes feel the pressure. They can see becoming ‘the goat’ very easily in this situation.”

Moving Day

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Los Angeles only has room for one or two teams, and there are three — the San Diego Chargers, the St. Louis Rams and the Oakland Raiders — currently vying for a spot. This isn’t the first time teams have threatened a move to the largest team-less city in the US; the prospect of a moving team puts pressure on local governments to help the team boost attendance, and convince them to stay, but this time it seems things are serious. All three teams have the developers and financing line upped; the Rams plan to build a stadium in Inglewood, while the Chargers and the Raiders are looking into a stadium in Carson. For a move to occur, three fourths of the league’s owners need to approve the move, a decision made based on ticket sales, attendance and the condition of the current stadium.

When a team leaves, it’s like breaking up with an entire city — and some breakups are messier than others. One of the most notorious was in 1983, when the Baltimore Colts left Baltimore in the dark of night for Indianapolis, where they’ve remained ever since. “I think the Baltimore one was kind of a game-changer,” said Scott Garceau, a longtime Baltimore resident and co-host of The Scott Garceau Show, a sports talk show on Baltimore’s 105.7 The Fan. “One of the visuals [I remember] was moving vans in the middle of the night, the mayor coming down the steps of his house that morning and I think he had tears in his eyes. He was saying that it was such a dark day…that this blindsided us.”

Part of this pain was caused by the team’s legacy in Baltimore. While the NFL was struggling to gain viewers, Johnny Unitas led the Colts to a victory over the Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship Game, known thereafter as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Then, during one night in 1983, the franchise was gone, the city stunned. This deep hurt would prove true in other cities, said Garceau: “If Green Bay lost the Packers, if Chicago lost the Bears, that city is crushed. Pittsburgh, oh my god, that’s an end-of-the-world kind of issue.”

But not for the three cities considering the move to L.A. The Raiders moved to L.A. during the ’80s and early ’90s, won a Super Bowl, and then moved back to Oakland, never winning a Super Bowl since and failing to make the playoffs for the past decade. The Rams were at one point the L.A. Rams, having moved there from Cleveland before leaving for St. Louis in 1995, scattering their fan base. And the Chargers spent one season in L.A. before moving to San Diego, where they’ve only managed one Super Bowl appearance in the past 50 years. Taken together, the Chargers, Raiders and Rams represent the 26th, 28th and 32nd valued teams in the 32-team league, so the move wouldn’t be much of a surprise.

Most interesting, Garceau predicts that the muted reaction from the newly team-less cities, wherever they are, will be increasingly common in the future, as it becomes easier to watch any team, anywhere. “In my day you cheered for the team where you grew up, but young kids today…there’s so much on TV and in video games. Less fans today are fans of the city they grew up in than at any time in my life. Kids see all the teams,” said Garceau. “Growing up, I had games from my team and maybe one national team a week. Just two games on Sunday. Now you can see it on Thursday night, Monday night, a double header on Sunday and then again on Sunday night.”

Protecting Players

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Photo: USATSI

Junior Seau, one of the greatest linebackers in league history, shot himself in the chest at his home in the summer of 2012. He was later found to be suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain caused by repeated hits to the head, also observed in the brain of Dave Duerson, who shot himself in the chest the year prior after first sending a text message to his family, requesting that his brain be donated to Boston University School of Medicine, where researchers were focusing on CTE. First associated with boxers, the disease, along with acute concussions, has gained widespread attention because of cases like Duerson’s and Seau’s, along with other tragedies involving players like Ray Easterling and Jovan Belcher. Then, this April, a judge reached the final approval on a $765 million settlement of a 2013 lawsuit filed by over 5,000 former players against the league over head injuries.

This coming football season, a rule change was put into place in which athletic trainers positioned in the press box can stop the game and pull players off the field if a concussion is suspected to have occurred, with the hope of protecting players. And on the silver screen, Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the scientist who first discovered CTE, in the upcoming film Concussion, which recently made headlines when leaked Sony emails revealed that the studio toned down certain points that would be damaging to the NFL.

“It has always been clearly on the radar screen, but it’s become more of a point of emphasis now,” said Barry Mano, a former NFL referee and founder of Referee Magazine. “There’s been a cultural shift, not only being driven by the legal system, but by parents of young people. ‘Hold up, football? I don’t know if we want to do that.’ Registration from football is down. It’s ‘the mom effect’: Hmmm, maybe my kid should play soccer instead of football,” said Mano, voicing the concerns of parents. Mano, who’s 70 years old, said in his days playing football, coaches held two-a-day practices in 100-degree heat. Coaches talked about “manning up” and “getting your bell rung.” Not anymore, he says, as the effects of the full-contact sport are being more fully understood.

But what about enforcement? How does the league maintain excitement and tone down the physicality? Referees have to crack down on the type of hits that some people have come to expect, and will watch in slow-motion replay again and again. But for referees, a booing crowd is “the drug,” Mano said. “You gotta love it when they boo, and I’m not being flippant. Of paramount importance is the rulebook. You might have 80,000 screaming fans, but that’s not going to impact me. End of story. The more they booed, the more I liked it. The louder they booed, the better I liked it. I think, ‘I got this play right.'”

A Commissioner who’s 0-5 and a Coach who’s 4-2

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Photo: AP

On September 9, 2007, the NFL season opener put the New England Patriots against the New York Jets. In the first half of the game, Matt Estrella, a 26-year-old Patriots video assistant, was caught by security guards videotaping the defensive signals of the Jets coaches. So began Spygate. Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, called a private meeting, after which “league executives stomped the tapes into pieces and shredded the papers inside a Gillette Stadium conference room,” according to a recently released ESPN report on the scandals. Then everyone just sort of moved on, upset and suspicious, but appeased by heartfelt apologies and tightened regulations.

Then in the 2014 AFC Championship Game, acting off a tip from the Colts’ equipment manager, who noticed that two balls intercepted by Colts safety Mike Adams while playing against Brady seemed under-inflated, NFL investigators began looking into the air pressure of game balls used in the championship game. Their findings were documented in the Wells Report, a 243-page investigative report on the alleged under-inflated balls. Goodell, satisfied by the damning report, and making what ESPN deemed a “make-up call,” suspended Brady for the first four games of the coming 2015-2016 season. Then, on September 3, Judge Richard M. Berman nullified Goodell’s suspension and, in a 40-page decision, wrote that the commissioner had “dispensed his own brand of industrial justice.” And so it became, from the Saints’ Bountygate scandal through Deflategate, Goodell went 0-5 on appeals of his high-profile disciplinary decisions, and Tom Brady would suit up against Pittsburg for the season opener. But while Brady was forgiven by Berman, he won’t be by opposing fans.

“The stuff yesterday makes it worse for the Patriots; it gives more people cause to doubt them and disrespect them,” said Dan Shaughnessy, a veteran sportswriter from the Boston area who writes for The Boston Globe. “It piles onto what’s already there.” But this questioning of integrity will just become another reason to hate the Patriots, according to Shaughnessy, not a disruption to the perception of the sport among fans. “No no no, it’s been demonstrated nothing will happen [to the league]. People will watch and play fantasy. It’s a product that’s still perfect for America in 2015. Controversy comes and goes, and the league moves on.”

To truly impact a franchise, it seems, the cheating has to go past gaining an edge, to something truly malicious, like Bountygate, which benched multiple players and coaches, including Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams. Or the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, in which eight players were barred from the sport forever.

But for the Patriots, it’ll be the normal dance steps of “concede nothing, deny, deny, accuse,” said Shaughnessy. And to their fans, “the Patriots did nothing wrong,” and, especially for the team at the top, “people are just jealous.”

The Stories of Super Bowl 50

What to see, read and hear about the big game. Read it here.

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